Friday, 25 October 2019

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre

It's fitting that Beryl is playing at the Arcola theatre in Dalston, not far from Cafe Beryl's that similarly commemorates the cyclist. Yet for many, Beryl Burton is an unknown.

The opening of this play from Maxine Peake, first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2014, admits and laments this. That's why the play, quite literally, aims to answer the question: who was Beryl Burton?

What ensues is a straightforward biographical depiction of Beryl's life, from childhood to her death in 1996. In that time she won numerous championship medals and held countless records (though sadly no Olympic medals, as women's cycling was only included from 1984 onwards). In addition to her life, the play also gives a potted history of the sport.

Yet what the play makes abundantly clear is the hardship she went through for such success. A woman in a man's world (who went on to exceed men's records), she endured farmwork and slowly rose through the ranks to reach the dizzying championship heights. And all with a lack of finances, done to earn money to look after her family as both mother and competitor. The play isn't overtly political, but it is an inherently feminist narrative.

As you'd expect from Peake, the script is funny. Much of this comes from fourth wall breaking moments where the actors banter and address the audience directly. It adds excitement to an otherwise simple piece of storytelling and the cast of four give buoyant performances as multiple characters both on and off their bikes - thighs of steel doesn't begin to cut it. There are plenty of small directorial touches too from Marieke Audsley, resulting in a polished and openly theatrical production.

It all speeds along at a fast pace that perhaps doesn't go into too much detail, instead focusing on the central protagonist with a smattering of secondary caricatures. But this is low stakes theatre, ideal for the Fringe, that's pleasantly enjoyable.

Above all this is an uplifting and wholesome story of a woman's fiery determination to overcome adversity. Who is Beryl Burton? An inspiration. Now there's a play to truly cement her place in sporting history.


Watch: Beryl runs at the Arcola Theatre until 16th November.

Beryl @ The Arcola Theatre
Photo: Alex Brenner

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre

It seems fitting to watch Mites on Mental Health Awareness Day. Written by James Mannion, this is a surreal, absurdist play that delves deep into psychosis in a visceral portrayal.

It starts innocently enough. Ruth (Claire Marie Hall) has been left by her husband and, when a pest control man named Ken (George Howard) arrives, she believes he's actually her husband returned to her. Why pest control? Because her home has been infested with dust mites. Oh and there's also a talking cat named Bartholomew (Richard Henderson).

This is (mostly) a comedy, with a hard-hitting message simmering beneath the surface, just out of our reach. It slowly becomes more and more bizarre, peeling back Inception-like layers as we delve into the psychological mystery, eventually meeting a family of dust mites themselves. Cecilia Trono's dusty set design similarly unveils itself in parallel with the narrative.

It's all very confusing, but also well-paced to draw us in. And that confusion is purposeful - it puts us (literally) inside Ruth's head so that we are just as confused as she is. We too are unsure what is real and what is fantasy, what's the truth and what is simply occurring in her mind.

Eventually the layers build up to a more lucid state. Yet there's an element of misogyny added towards the end which makes for uncomfortable viewing as both Ruth's husband and a psychiatric doctor appear to manipulate her and take advantage of her. This then morphs into a feminist revenge tale that feels tacked on, as if Mannion felt the play needed explaining, when its cleverness lies in its ambiguity.

What makes Mites so compelling though are the committed performances from the cast. As Ruth, Hall is particularly enthralling - her distress is palpable, her mood swings endearing. Despite the craziness around her, she's a character we immediately warm to from start to finish.


Watch: Mites runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 26th October.

Mites @ The Tristan Bates Theatre
Photo: Lidia Crisafulli

Monday, 7 October 2019

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre

What could be more British than karaoke in a pub? That's the setting for this state of the nation play written by Annie Jenkins and produced by pluck. productions.

The four-strong cast deliver four monologues to the sounds of cheap instrumental karaoke songs, each bravely stepping up to tell their story. It's a clever idea, monologue and song in parallel as if revealing the internal thoughts of each character. The stories gradually interlink with internal references and callbacks, slowly weaving a web and drawing us in.

Yet despite some comedic moments, Karaoke Play has an oppressive, dismal tone. Collectively, the stories touch on rape, drugs, terrorism and violence, all told through vulgar and overtly sexual language. This may be a comment on our modern society, but it lacks nuance and feels as if trying too hard to shock.

What's more, the narrative is ultimately circular but lacks drive and urgency, meandering through each story before ramping up to a crescendo of shouting and bad singing (likely on purpose, but still unpleasant). By the end, the play has established an apocalyptic tone that thoroughly depresses, but it's unclear what Jenkins is trying to say beyond this.

There's some strong acting on stage from Philip Honeywell as Darren and Lucy Bromilow as Perri, though their characters remain wholly unlikeable and lack humanity. Perhaps that too is a comment on present day Britain, but Jenkins' play leaves us cold.


Watch: Karaoke Play runs at the Bunker Theatre until 14th October.

Karaoke Play @ The Bunker Theatre
Photo: Michael Lindall